Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Case of the Disappearing "V"

One of the many obscure courses I took in university was Anglo-Saxon. We just studied it as a foreign language. One word that we learned in that class caused me to consider the fragility of the intervocalic "v."

The word was "hlaford" which means "lord." The "f" in the middle is pronounced as a "v." Note that in the modern word, there is no such sound. As I have said before, etymology is a study in which consonants count for little and vowels for nothing at all. Lots of sounds disappear and change, but I thought about the elision of the intervocalic "v" in some poetic examples of words like "ever," "over," and "never," which can be written as "e'er," "o'er," and "ne'er," respectively.

Ever since then, I have been making note of other words in which the "v" disappears.

Take, for example, the lovely Regency gentleman's essential, the cravat. Yes, in English this word has a "v" in the middle, but my point becomes clear when you learn that the origin of this word is "Croat" as in Croatian. Look! The "v" is gone! The Croatian word for Croatia is Hrvatska, with a "v" so we are the ones who took it out of the name of the country, Croatia; we didn't add it to the word for necktie.

Another case is the more common word, "woman." If you go back far enough, the word "man" just meant person. The word "wyf" meant female, and eventually turned into the word "wife." To specify a female person, you could say "wyfman."(The "y" was originally pronounced as a rounded front vowel, like a French "u"). Again, the "f" would have been pronounced as a "v" and again it mysteriously disappears and we are left with "woman."

As an aside, someone came up with a theory that the word "woman" was related to the word "womb" and some people liked this and took it up, even though it is not supported by any evidence and the etymology I have explained is well evidenced and there is no reason to doubt it. If you ever come across this womb-based theory, you may rely on me as your authority for its error.

Another inter-linguistic example is the name John, which in Italian is Giovanni. It seems we English just don't like that "v". (Although not directly relevant, I cannot omit to say that the first "i" in Giovanni is not pronounced. It is only there to soften the "G" the way we don't pronounce the first "e" in George. It is silent, but functional. Without it, the name would be Gorge... King Gorge? Prince Gorge? The Gorge Inn? I don't think so.)

There are other examples, but I think I have made my point with the above. There are reasonable linguistic explanations for this disappearance - "v" is highly vocalic, when placed between vowels, or other highly vocal sounds, it could easily assimilate, etc. - but it was never discussed in the whole course of my degree, and I took every class in which it could have come up. Am I the first to notice this? I would be surprised if there is not a linguist somewhere writing a Masters thesis on the subject, but if not, I am happy to take the credit for it. The "Melanie Kerr Intervocalic Labiodental Fricative Elision Hypothesis" - is it just me or does that sound like a dirty word?

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook